While The Red Badge of Courage has more than one theme, or message, that Stephen Crane proposes through his narrative, the Naturalistic theme seems the most salient. That is, Crane portrays Nature as an impersonal force with Henry Fleming isolated and alone. For, as a man, Henry is at the mercy of a superior and cosmic force in spite of his own thoughts and instincts.
Here are two examples of this theme:
1. Stephen Crane candidly reports the inhumanity of man to man amid the brutish forces of nature. When Henry runs from the violence and chaos, he finds no solace in the woods; instead, he is
obliged to force his way with much noise. The creepers, catching against his legs, cried out harshly as their sprays were torn from the barks of trees.
As he moves deeper into the woods, he espies what he believes is a lovely spot only to happen upon the horror of discovering a decaying body. As he flees, Henry turns, fearing that the corpse may be calling out to him:
2. At the very end of the novel, after Henry has suffered through his fears and isolation and emerged triumphant from battle, the weather of the indifferent nature is similar to that of the battle in which he has run away. In Chaper VII, Crane describes the setting:
At length he reached a place where the high, arching boughs made a chapel. He solftly pushed the green doors aside and entered. Pine needles were a gentle brown carpet. There was a religious half light.
But, in the next sentence Crane narrates,
Near the threshold he stopped, horor-stricken at the sight of a thing. He was being looked at by a dead man who was seated with his back against a columnlike tree.
This gruesome sight is placed amid the tranquil beauty of nature in much the same design as that of the novel's conclusion which portrays Henry's victory and coming of age, rather than his frightened fright, evincing the indifference of Nature to that which transpires with man, although Henry imagines that it is sympathetic as he has "rid himself of the red sickness of battle,"
with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks--an existence of soft and eternal peace.